The envelope in my hand was thick. Rather than a tidy $1,000 check, it was filled with many worn, wrinkled bills along with a few newer crisp ones. The crisp ones were worth more only because of the numbers printed on them.  The wrinkled ones represented camaraderie, compassion and sacrifice.

Tatyana Vladimirovna has been an engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant since the late 1980s. She was part of a team of men and women who daily risked their own health to keep the failed plant as safe as possible.  For 20 years, her work attire included special uniforms, a badge to detect radiation exposure levels, and occasionally protective masks.

After she took the job, she moved to the worker city, Slavutych, with the other Chernobyl employees. A tight knit community that worked together and live side by side. Later her aging mother needed care and moved in, adding to Tatyana’s responsibilities.

When the exhaustion and weakness began, Tatyana assumed she was simply getting a bit older and could no longer keep up with a stressful job and nursing her mom. She tried to slow down, but it did not help. The exhaustion deepened. Finally, she was forced to make a choice, take care of her mother or continue to work. She chose family and retired. But the exhaustion worsened. Finally, she sought medical help and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer with less than 50% chance of survival. Treatable? Yes, with surgery. The cost? $1,000 USD.

Her $600 USD a year pension covered their basic needs but there was no extra for a surgery. No health insurance. No hope.

Tatyana did not have the funds for the surgery or the medicine, so she went to the bank to inquire about a loan.  The bank looked at her income of under $50 USD per month and denied her loan request; the chances were too high that she would never be able to pay it back. By November, with no other option, Tatyana wrote an e-mail to the current workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, explained her impossible situation, and how she was also concerned about who would care for her mother if anything happen to her, and asked for any help that they might be able to provide.

Despair began to set in. Who would take care of her mother? Who would take care of her?

Help came from her ex-coworker/neighbors. She was well liked and they gave generously, sacrificial, painfully knowing that someday it might be them. Together, the workers of Chernobyl raised over $300 USD. They knew it wasn’t enough but they put it in the envelope and boarded the train back to the worker village.

I was riding the Semikhody train with the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on the way back to the worker-city, Slavutych, in November 2016, speaking with my dear friend Stanislav Shekstelo, the Public Relations Manager for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  It just so happened that the day I was riding home on the train with Stanislav was the day that Tatyana had sent the request and the workers had raised some of the money.

Stanislav explained the situation to me. I couldn’t help but be moved.  That night, at dinner with my American colleagues, I couldn’t help but share what Stanislav had told me.  I explained the serious problem that Tatyana faced, and how after all we gain from our experience at Chernobyl, this was our opportunity to finally give back.

That night, I’m proud to say, my American colleagues and I raised the rest of the funds needed for Tatyana to receive her surgery and pay for post-operative thyroid medication.  The next morning when I saw Stanislav, I gave him a small envelope with a letter for Tatyana and the donated money for her operation.  Stanislav insisted that we give the funds directly to Tatyana, and so it was that I found myself in her living room.

Tatyana’s hand trembled as she took the envelope from my hand. Ukrainian words tumbled from her lips. I could not understand but her tear-filled eyes spoke volumes. “I was trapped without hope. You have handed me hope and I KNOW how much it cost.”

We hugged. We wept. She beamed at us and at we smiled back at her.

We handed her an envelope. She received a future. Our part was so small and the result was so disproportionally big that I knew I had to make a way for others to share in this gift of giving.

These worthy workers need help covering their major medical expenses. Although surgeries and procedures are inexpensive in Ukraine, it is still beyond their ability to pay for them. Please consider partnering with the workers of Chernobyl, being part of compassionate few that help when it hopeless.

On November 28th, 2016, Tatyana had thyroid surgery at the main cancer institute in Kiev.  The surgery was done in time requiring no additional follow-up radio-iodine therapy treatments. We visited her in April, 2017. The tears are gone. Her eyes sparkle with life and gratitude.

A photo of CFF co-founders Lucas Hixson (left), Erik Kambarian (right), and Tatyana Vladimirovna (center) in April 2017 after her recovery from successful thyroid surgery in December 2016.